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Belaboring the Obvious

Spider's Online Diary

7 December, 2000--An essay on the making of the CD, "Belaboring the Obvious":

Belaboring the Obvious about Belaboring The Obvious
(Everything I have to say about my new CD that didn't fit into the liner notes)
by Spider Robinson

© 2000 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved written 08 July, 2000:

A long time ago a young man named Raymond C. Robinson left Albany, Georgia with not much but a dream, a knack for music, and a really cool pair of sunglasses. He worked hard, paid his dues, put in endless hours in sleazy ginmills, even played music from time to time...but it was only when he had the wit to drop his last name that young Ray Charles found his destiny, his fortune, and his place in musical history.

Unfortunately he and I are totally unrelated, so it took me half a century to cut my own first album.

A musician was what I always wanted to be when I grew up. I just didn't make the cut. At about the point when I was getting good enough to get gigs, the bottom suddenly fell out of the Folk Music market: without warning the lovably whacky public had decided it preferred disco. Minor but chronic annoyance to bail bondsmen and legal aid lawyers across North America--not to mention myself--was narrowly forestalled when I discovered by accident that science fiction writing offered an alternative way to avoid working for a living. The brief danger of my entrance into respectable society passed, to the barely concealed relief of both sides, and life went on. And on. For decades.

Then, in 1996, came Josh Mandel.

People have been optioning TV and/or movie rights to my Callahan's Place stories for decades, now. I've learned not to pay attention. Nothing ever actually happens. The option always expires before "commencement of principal photography." (Translation: the day they owe me big bucks.) When Josh Mandel came along, two things immediately distinguished him from the herd. First, his cheque cleared without hassle. Second, he was optioning neither big-screen nor middlesized-screen rights: he wanted littlest-screen rights. Computer game rights.

So I paid even less attention than usual. I knew nothing about computer games, granted--but I knew enough to be sure Callahan's Place couldn't possibly work in that format, and if you could figure a way to make it work, nobody would produce it, and if someone did, nobody would buy it. (One out of three is about average for me.) I cashed Josh's cheque and forgot the matter. Even when I heard the game would be produced by Legend Entertainment, a highly respected firm, I nodded politely and put it out of my mind.

Then one day he phoned. "Spider, I know you used to be a musician, and you've put song lyrics in a lot of the Callahan's stories. Do you have tunes for any of them? And would you, by any chance, be interested in recording some, for the soundtrack of my game? I think I can get Legend to spring for enough money to cut, say, four tracks, in a professional studio with good session players, and pay a producer, and so forth. What do you say?"

I was born in the Bronx. What I said, after a long and reverent pause, was, "Hey, Fats! You wanna clean that reindeer shit offa my roof, or what?"

That night it chanced that Amos Garrett was in town, blowing at the Yale Hotel with his famous Eh? Team. Naturally I fell by. I've worshipped Amos's guitar-playing since I first heard his legendary work on Maria Muldaur's "Midnight At The Oasis," back in the 60s. (Stevie Wonder famously called it "the second greatest break in the history of rock and roll," admitting later that he didn't know any better ones but hadn't wanted to offend all his other guitarist friends.) Years later I met Amos in the Green Room for the TV show Canada AM, found out he was a science fiction fan, we became immediate friends, and I subsequently wrote the liner notes for a couple of his splendid R&B albums for Holger Petersen's Stony Plain Records. I was in the studio the day he laid down what will probably turn out to have been the single best track of his long and storied career, the Santo and Johnny Fariña instrumental "Sleepwalk" (for the album I MAKE MY HOME IN MY SHOES); I still have the pick he cracked while playing that incredible last chorus.

Amos Garrett© Greg McKinnon

Anyway, that night when Amos came down off the stand for his first break, I bought him a beer and told him my little joke: 25 years after I bombed out of the music business, some fool had just offered me money to record my own songs. Hilarious, right? I'm telling a man who's played for Paul Butterfield, who's jammed with the Beatles, whose Telecaster is the first sound heard in the film BRAZIL, that I'm going to cut four whole tracks for a computer game; it's like telling Einstein your science project has been picked for the County Fair. Picture now the deepest voice you ever heard, a voice that makes James Earl Jones sound like Jon Anderson of Yes, and imagine this voice saying these words to you in a crowded bar:

"Got a lead guitar player?"

For complete accuracy, imagine it with a loud dull CLUNK! approximately four seconds after the question mark, representing the sound of my lower mandible hitting the barroom floor...

When I regained the power of speech, and finished stammering incoherent thanks, I asked Amos's advice on how to find a good producer. "Danny Casavant's your man," he said without hesitation. So I called Danny, and he was available and willing, and after some brief negotiations with Legend Entertainment about budget he lined up musicians, booked studio time, and we started cutting.


At once it became clear Danny was an old pro. The musicians he picked were simply the best in Vancouver, with enough recording credits among them to impress even Amos (Mike Creber, for instance, has cut half a dozen platinum records with people like K.D. Lang), and they clearly held Danny in high respect. Danny himself filled in on 12-string, banjo, whatever stringed instrument seemed necessary. He had us cut basic tracks at Paul Baker's Bakerstreet Studio in North Vancouver--a sage choice; Mr. Baker is very good and very fast--then insisted on bringing me to two other studios (Sid Perez's Mainline Sound Design and Bill Buckingham's Buckingham Palace) to record certain "fine points," little sonic details and grace notes those studios were especially suited to capture, before returning to Baker Street for the final mixdown. I found all of it absolutely fascinating and totally exhilarating, a lifetime dream come true--it was simply the happiest I've ever been without Jeanne in my arms--and I was inexpressibly grateful to be in the hands of an old pro like Danny Casavant.

A week or two into the process I finally found time to confess to Danny that I was so ignorant of the local music scene that I knew nothing about his background--nothing about him at all except that Amos had recommended him, really. What other artists and bands, I asked, had he produced?

"Oh, I've never produced a track before in my life," he said.

This time you should imagine the sound of my jaw hitting the floor as something that would register on seismographs in Saö Paulo.

"Why did Amos recommend you?" I managed to ask.

"I've been wondering about that myself," he admitted. "I've performed with him, but I don't believe I ever even so much as mentioned a desire to produce in his hearing."

The next time I was in the same bar as Amos, I asked him why the hell he had recommended Danny--how had he known how good the guy would be? He smiled that big slow sleepy smile of his. "Had a feeling," he said, and finished his beer.

Anyway, once we had the basic master mix on ADAT, Danny flew it to Turner Valley, Alberta, where Amos laid down his solos and other guitar work in a local studio called The Loft, for engineer Duane Sands. I phoned Amos that night, too excited to wait for Danny to fly the results back to British Columbia. How did it go? I asked. "You're gonna like the solo for 'The Drunkard's Song,' I think," Amos said, and I could hear him grin over the phone.

Christmas Eve feeling. "What's it like?"

"Well," he drawled, "picture a drunken busker...he's staggering through the subway at 4 AM...playing a Hagstrom guitar through a battery-powered Pignose amp for a couple of hookers...and they've inspired him, he's starting to get something going, you know...but he can't quite decide on a key."

Danny's whooping laughter drowned him out.

Amos didn't even tell me about the incredible solo he had created that day for "Oblivion." The first time I heard it, in Paul Baker's studio, I thought my heart was going to stop. To this day I can't hear it without the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I know I'm biased, but I think it's one of Amos's most memorable solos, and I realize what a sweeping statement that is. I'm unspeakably proud to have had a part in its creation.

Anyway, Danny brought back the bacon from Turner Valley, and then he and Mike and Paul reassembled and remixed the results back at Bakerstreet Studios in North Van, while I watched and learned and marveled...

...and finally it was done, and I was over the moon.

And then...

...well, and then, not much, really.

As adapted by the aforementioned Josh Mandel, the computer game Callahan's Crosstime Saloon was, creatively and artistically, a huge success. Reviews were unanimously favorable, and nearly every reviewer took notice of the fact that here was a game which, though undeniably fascinating and addictive, somehow did NOT involve spilling blood, deflowering virgins, dismembering or dismembering sentient beings, or blowing up a single artifact....

...and, oh yes, was as funny as a sonofabitch. Josh put several times more work into that game than I put into an average novel. Just about anything onscreen that you clicked would produce a joke...three or four different jokes, each funnier than the last. His puns were actually perceptibly worse than my own; at one point, for instance (to give too many examples), you are required to take a plane, and find that it is operated by "an aging carrier, Ivor Raseedin Airline." No question, artistically the game was a triumph: a genuine laff riot and a series of rousing adventures.

Commercially was another matter. Just before releasing the game, Legend Entertainment foundered, one of many victims of a general industry shakeout. Its corpse was bought up by giant game conglomerate Take Two Limited...which wasn't terribly interested in Legend's actual inventory so much as in getting it out of their way. Josh's Callahan's game was given less than perfunctory promotion or support. Sales reflected this. As Roger Miller famously said of his first album, "Well, it started out slow...but then it tapered right off."

For that reason, no Macintosh version was ever even attempted--so I myself have played the game only once in my life, when Josh demo'd it for me on his personal laptop in my own dining room. (For eight straight hours. Then he packed it up and drove straight back home. Couldn't get him to accept so much as a cup of coffee. Interesting man.) It may be possible to purchase a copy of that game today, but I wouldn't know how. If it is possible, bet it wouldn't be easy. Or cheap.

All of which is to say that, proud as I was and am of the recordings I made for the soundtrack of that game, up until today, hardly anybody has ever actually heard them.

And almost nobody has ever heard them in their full glory. They truly are magnificent recordings, and no onboard PC sound system I know could possibly do them justice: Danny Casavant's splendid production job cries out for full spectrum CD-quality stereo sound and good speakers at high volume.

So I am totally thrilled to finally be able to make them available to you in their full sonic splendor, on an audio CD, in stereo. If you enjoy them one percent as much as I enjoyed recording them, your face is going to hurt from smiling for a long time.

Mine still does.

* * * * *

As for the rest of the CD...

People keep asking me why my books are not available as "talking books" on tape. The reason is simple: the people who do talking books have never asked me. Why not, I could not say; my agent is not hard to locate. I'm as puzzled as anyone else. Whatever the reason, I finally got tired of waiting for them to notice me. Today, modern technology allows me to Do It Myself--so why the hell not?

Also, reading my work aloud to an audience is almost my favorite part of the whole writer's life. (My favorite part is when the cheque arrives.) By then, all the hard work is already done, and I've already been reassured by other professionals that it's pretty good stuff, and all I have to do now is unveil the mysteries and wonders I have carefully prepared, and listen to the crowd gasp, and watch their eyes get big when I get to the exciting part, and hear that satisfying laugh when I get to the funny part--all that stuff. The public reading session is usually my favorite program event at sf conventions or literary festivals, and audiences usually seem to enjoy it too.

So here, at last, is a little preserved sample of it for those who don't happen to find Worldcon or Harbourfront convenient to attend. I hope you will find it as enjoyable, in a diffrent way, as the music. And if not...well, one nice thing about CDs is, you can skip a track instantly.

* * * * *

Finally, to answer the obvious question: yes. If the response to this CD seems to warrant it (read: "if I don't lose my shirt on this project"), I hope to do this again. More than once. In fact, I already have two more CDs in mind. One CD of just music--featuring some solo stuff, just me and my guitar Lady Macbeth--and one of just readings--perhaps two or three complete short stories this time, or maybe even an entire novel.

Your feedback, on this present CD or on hypothetical future ones, is most welcome. Please send it here to this website, and in the fullness of time it will be electronically shoveled past my eyes. I can't promise to answer it, but I will read it and take it to heart.

* * * * *

I can't close without repeating what I said in the liner notes: that this entire CD e-commerce project was accomplished more or less singlehanded by my best friend and spouse Jeanne, and all credit for it is due to her. She inspired the writing of the songs in the first place, assisted their subsequent recording, produced the recording of the reading portions with the assistance of Peter Armstrong, oversaw the production and packaging of the CD itself, and is handling its marketing and sales. If you have a big complex project with serious deadlines and need it organized, you might want to give serious thought to trying to hire her. She could make the Oscars end on time. She'd have had all those Florida ballots counted--accurately--by the morning after the polls closed. She...

...but I see I'm belaboring the obvious.